Planning Commission OKs Design Review

Changes to code go to city council, wrapping up A2D2 process

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (April 5, 2011): In another step toward completing a years-long process to develop design guidelines for downtown properties, planning commissioners unanimously recommended approval of amendments to Ann Arbor’s city code that establish a design review board and design review procedures.

Kirk Westphal

Kirk Westphal, an Ann Arbor planning commissioner, served on the city task force that helped developed design guidelines for downtown development. (Photo by the writer.)

One person, former planning commissioner Ethel Potts, spoke during a public hearing on the topic. Potts said she was glad the design review comes early in the project approval process, but she wondered how the review would be used – that could be a challenge. Commissioners discussed the issue only briefly before the vote.

In the city’s project approval process, the design review would take place before the mandatory citizen participation meeting, so that the design review board’s comments could be incorporated into the project’s design before it’s presented to citizens. However, developers aren’t required to act on the review board’s recommendations. Though the review process is mandatory, implementation of the board’s suggestions is voluntary.

Downtown Design Review Program

The city council had approved a program of design guidelines at its Feb. 7, 2011 meeting, and also appointed a temporary design review committee. In addition, they asked the planning staff and planning commission to draft ordinances that would lay out details of a design review program in the city’s code. On Tuesday, planning commissioners got an update from staff on the code changes, held a public hearing on the proposal, and briefly discussed it before voting to recommend approval by the city council.

Downtown Design Review: Staff Report

Wendy Rampson, who leads the city’s planning staff, gave a brief history and overview of the design guidelines process, which is part of the broader A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown) initiative. She noted that it’s an issue they’ve been talking about for many years, going back to the 1980s. More recently, in 2007, the city council identified five priorities that emerged from the Calthorpe study, which had been commissioned by the city to plan a strategy for future downtown development. Design guidelines were one of those priorities. [Other aspects of A2D2 include downtown zoning changes; historic preservation updates; changes to the development process; and parking and transportation strategies.]

An advisory committee was formed to work on developing design guidelines with city staff and a consultant, Winter & Co., who had been hired to lead workshops and community discussions. In 2009, a set of design guidelines was presented to the community. Feedback at the time, Rampson said, was that the guidelines were too difficult to understand – that they needed to be simplified, with examples to illustrate the different design concepts. It was also felt that a design guidelines process should be developed too.

In early 2010, the council dissolved the original advisory committee and formed a new design guidelines task force to review the guidelines and develop a review process. Members included city councilmember Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), planning commissioner Kirk Westphal, Tamara Burns, Bill Kinley, Dick Mitchell, Peter Pollack and Norm Tyler. That group met 34 times, and came up with recommendations that the city council approved at its Feb. 7, 2011 meeting after holding a working session on the topic in January.

Also at that Feb. 7 meeting, council appointed a temporary design review committee, which will become the official design review board (DRB) after changes to the city code are approved. Its members are: Chet Hill (landscape architect); Mary Jukari (landscape architect); Dick Mitchell (architect); Tamara Burns (architect); Paul Fontaine (planner); Bill Kinley (developer); and Geoff Perkins (contractor). [For additional background on the process of developing design guidelines, see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Hotel First to Get Design Review?"]

To codify the design review process, two new sections were added to the city code: (1) Section 1:239 “Design Review Board” was added to Title 1, Chapter 8; and (2) Section 5:126 “Design Review Board review for certain downtown properties” was added to Title V, Chapter 57. [.pdf file of proposed city code changes – new additions to the code are underlined; strike-throughs indicate deletions.]

The design review will apply to certain downtown properties:

  • projects on land that’s zoned D1 or D2, or rezoned to PUD (planned unit development) within the Downtown Development Authority district;
  • projects that result in an increase in usable floor area;
  • projects with a site plan that requires planning commission or city council approval, a PUD site plan; a planned project; or an administrative amendment that significantly alters the appearance of the building from the public right of way.

Projects located in a historic district will not go through this design review process, because those properties would be covered by the Historic District Commission design review.

As the first step in a project approval process, developers would submit preliminary project design plans to the DRB, along with an application and fee. The review process would occur before the mandatory citizen participation meeting.

At the DRB meeting, the developer will present the project to board members and discuss whether it meets the intent of the downtown design guidelines. No public commentary will be allowed at the meeting. The DRB will make a report of its finding, which will be forwarded to the planning commission and city council.

If a project goes through the design review process but later changes significantly, the project is allowed – but not required – to reapply to the DRB for another review.

Downtown Design Review: Public Hearing

Ethel “Eppie” Potts was the only speaker during the public hearing on Tuesday. “This has indeed been a long process,” she began, adding that it seems this is the end of the years-long A2D2 process. She said she wished that the different elements of A2D2 had been better coordinated, so that they could be more effective as a whole. Potts wondered what planning commissioners expected out of the design guidelines and review board. She said she asked some people she knew what they thought the design guidelines would accomplish. Their expectation is that the guidelines will result in a much better quality of architecture, suitability, scale, context of buildings downtown, she reported. But many of these results stem from zoning, not design guidelines, she observed.

Potts wondered what the legal force of the design guidelines would be. She thought the process was good, since the design review comes at the beginning of the approval process – even before the mandatory citizen participation meeting. The review board will provide a report on each project, but what will planning commissioners do with that feedback? It will be a challenge for them to decide how much weight to give the review board’s input, Potts said, and how that will fit in with all the legal requirements they have to consider. “We are all going to be learning to what degree we can make this all fit together,” she concluded.

Downtown Design Review: Commissioner Discussion

Bonnie Bona said it was exciting to see these design guidelines finally ready to be implemented. Responding to Potts’ comments, Bona said it’s important to have a document that tells developers what the community wants, rather than having to ask for changes later in the process. Giving developers a better idea of what the city wants to see in a building will make a significant improvement in the projects that are brought forward, she said. It was important to get this process started, she added – but they need to be willing to make changes to it in the future, if necessary.

Eric Mahler pointed to one of the review board’s duties as stated in the revised code:

1:239 (3) c: To report periodically to City Council regarding the effectiveness of the design review process and make recommendations for any changes to the Downtown Design Guidelines.

What’s meant by effectiveness, he asked, and how will it be measured?

Kirk Westphal, who served on the design guidelines task force, said his understanding is that for each project, the board will track what kind of information and feedback is most helpful to the developer. The hope is that there will be communication between the board and the city council, and that the process can be tweaked if needed. The language in the code is to ensure that there’s an expectation of feedback, he said.

Tony Derezinski, who serves on the planning commission as well as city council, said that if certain design guidelines prove particularly useful or popular, there’s the possibility that the council could enact them into the city’s zoning ordinances.

Outcome: Planning commissioners unanimously recommended approval of amendments to Ann Arbor’s city code that establish a design review board and design review procedures. The item needs city council approval before taking effect.

Communications from Staff

Wendy Rampson – head of the city’s planning staff – gave several updates during her report to the commission. She noted that the city’s budget for fiscal 2012 would be presented at the April 11 city council work session, followed by an April 13 town hall meeting, where city administrator Roger Fraser will answer questions from the public. [The meeting will be held from 7-9 p.m. at the studios of Community Television Network (CTN), 2805 S. Industrial Highway.] The council will formally receive the budget at its April 19 meeting, and is expected to give final approval in May.

Rampson reported that a farewell open house for Fraser – who’s leaving the city at the end of April to take a job as deputy treasurer for the state of Michigan – will be held from 1-4 p.m. on Friday, April 29 at city hall, 301 E. Huron St.

At the planning commission’s April 12 work session, they’ll be discussing details of their April 26 retreat, Rampson said. They’ll also talk about possibly moving ahead on a request for proposals (RFP) to seek a consultant for the State Street area corridor planning process.

Finally, Rampson noted that at their April 19 meeting, the city council is expected to take a final vote on both licensing and zoning regulations for medical marijuana facilities. City staff is preparing to implement these new regulations, in case they are in fact approved on April 19. Several different areas are involved in addition to planning staff, she said, including representatives from the city attorney’s office, the police department, and the clerk’s office. She said she’d keep the commission updated on that progress.

Present: Bonnie Bona, Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Evan Pratt, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods.

Absent: Erica Briggs.

Next regular meeting: The planning commission has canceled its April 21 meeting because no projects are ready to come forward. Its next regular meeting will be on Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the city hall second-floor council chambers, 301 N. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]


  1. By Tom Whitaker
    April 9, 2011 at 6:49 pm | permalink

    I’m glad to see this finally getting through the approval process and moving forward to Council. Two relatively simple changes that I’d like to see Council consider:

    1. While the make-up of the board is well specified in that it SHALL be made up of architects and other professionals (as it should), the first part states that it is to be made up of those with an “interest” in design, etc. Certainly design and development professionals have an interest, but too often this term gets interpreted as including those who are merely “interested” in the topic. The result has been some very questionable appointments of political friends to City commissions who were wholly unqualified. I hope Council will replace the term “interest” with something a bit more compatible with the second part–like “stake” or “professional interest.”

    2. Since the design review board will issue a report BEFORE the public participation meeting, it ought to be required that the petitioner have the findings of this report available at that meeting so the public can see exactly where the petitioner is following the review board’s recommendations, and where he is not.

  2. April 11, 2011 at 10:12 am | permalink

    The real planning problem in Ann Arbor is that there isn’t any. This leaves the DDA and City Council in charge and their approach to planning is to proceed one parcel at a time, which results, inevitably, in incoherence and dissatisfaction. Similarly, design guidelines for individual buildings are essentially irrelevant; if there were a formula for good building design, we’d already be using it.